New Bengals linebackers coach Paul Guenther isn't so new and neither is his belief that all three spots are virtually interchangeable.
"It's like a baseball lineup," Guenther said Monday. "We want the three best guys on the field at the same time. It doesn't matter if he's a Mike, a SAM, or a WILL. In my mind, it's the best linebacker. It's not like the positions are all that different. The techniques are pretty much the same. We're not a 3-4 team where there are different body types (for outside and inside)."
From 2007-2009 Guenther assisted the linebackers spot during a stretch the Bengals drafted WILL linebacker Keith Rivers in the first round in 2008 and middle linebacker Rey Maualuga in the second round in 2009, and signed backups Brandon Johnson and Dan Skuta as free agents.
Familiar with the players and scheme, Guenther, who coached the safeties last season, is holding out hope for Rivers after he missed all last season with a wrist injury while free agent Thomas Howard solidified the WILL spot in the first year of a two-year deal. With both outside backer spots interchangeable, Guenther isn't ruling out a position switch for anyone.
He said he thinks Rivers still has a role.
"When you pick those guys high in the draft, you've got to make sure they perform, particularly linebackers because they play both the run and the pass," Guenther said. "I'm excited about getting those guys to flourish where we drafted them. It's something we're going to look at in the offseason. What's the best fit? Rey has played SAM, Thomas can play both, and Keith has shown he can do different things. They all have their traits. We just have to find out what the three best are."
There are questions. Starting SAM Manny Lawson is a free agent, as is nickel backer Brandon Johnson. Maualuga may be facing an NFL suspension with a misdemeanor assault charge after an incident in a downtown Cincinnati bar at closing time last weekend. Dontay Moch, last year's third-round pick, saw his transition from college defensive end to NFL outside backer cut short by injury and illness.
Guenther said he had lunch with Maualuga last week and emphasized that their relationship "is going to a new level" with assignment change. While the club waits on Maualuga's fate, Guenther's view from a football standpoint is that he made a solid transition from SAM to replacing captain Dhani Jones at middle backer last year when it came to Xs and Os. Guenther acknowledged Maualuga's ankle injury hobbled him a bit late in the year (when the Bengals run defense imploded), but that he also needs him to improve in some areas.
"I thought he did a heck of a job handling all the checks and the calls and making the adjustments for what Dhani did," Guenther said. "We've just got to get him to play better.
"That was the big question mark. Could he direct all the traffic in there? And he did a good job with it. I just think he's worrying about being perfect all the time instead of just playing and what we saw at USC: Run to the ball, make tackles, linebacker of the year, defensive player of the year, and that's what we have to get out of him."
Also back in the mix is one of the fourth-round picks from 2010, Roddrick Muckelroy. Muckelroy showed the potential of playing all three spots when last season ended for him in the first half hour of training camp with a torn Achilles.